Subconsciously picking up information for use later in life is a process known as latent learning.

Let’s say you’re walking down a road for the first time. You notice tall bushes obscuring a busy intersection but think nothing of it. Next time you drive your car down the same road, you immediately slow down and become alert anticipating poor visibility at the intersection. This is thanks to latent learning.

Latent learning, also known as incidental learning, is a passive type of cognitive learning. It involves no immediate reward or punishment after you’re exposed to new information.

Cognitive refers to mental processes and functions such as thinking, recalling information, and reasoning.

The concept of latent learning was developed in 1929 by Hugh C. Blodgett, who described it in laboratory rodents as they gradually improved the way they navigated their way through mazes.

Even in the absence of an immediate food reward, rats were able to gain insights into their environment, helping them progress through the maze.

In 2021, Maya Zhe Wang and Benjamin Hayden theorized that curiosity, or the desire to gather information, is the main motivation behind latent learning. This leads learners to build cognitive maps about their environments.

What are cognitive maps?

Cognitive maps refer to plots or charts you keep in your mind that represent your environment. They’re your awareness of the world you move through. Knowing where your bathroom or the principal’s office is, comes from a cognitive map you built of your home and your school.

Edward Tolman expanded on latent learning in the 1940s by introducing the concept of cognitive mapping. Like Blodgett, Tolman also experimented with rodent maze tests.

The concept of cognitive mapping was used to explain how rats were still able to navigate mazes under new circumstances.

For example, rats could adjust their movements to another successful path of travel if the primary one was suddenly blocked. This implied the rats had a working knowledge of the entire maze, not just knowledge of the most used or most immediate route.

The observation formed the core concept of cognitive mapping: the ability to use latent learning as a way of creating large-scale environmental awareness.

One of the main differences between latent and observational learning is the presence of reinforcement in the latter one.

The concept of observational learning is a part of social learning theory pioneered by Albert Bandura, who suggested one way you learn behaviors, attitudes, and thought processes is through observing and imitating others.

How someone reacts to your behavior (the reinforcement they give you) is a part of observational learning and can dictate if you decide to repeat that behavior or try something else.

If you observe your mom getting angry when you eat with your fingers, for example, you may learn eating that way is undesirable.

Latent learning, on the other hand, can occur in the absence of others and without reinforcement — positive or negative.

With latent learning, you may not even realize you’ve acquired knowledge in the moment. You may observe something but don’t realize you could use that information later on. When you do, you may not realize when or where you learned it.

You may use latent learning in all areas of life.

At home

Putting away cleaning supplies in your new home you realize the water valve is in the way. Months later when a pipe breaks, you know the water valve is in the closet where the cleaning supplies are kept.

At work

Working in a multi-level office, the conference rooms are on the second floor. You always take the elevators but today, they’re not working. You take the stairs to the right of the hall because you know they lead to the room you need to go to.

At school

During science class, you sit next to a wooden shelf full of textbooks. When your personal book gets damaged later in the year, you immediately check the shelf where you know there’s a row of science textbooks.

Latent learning is often subconscious, unintentional learning that has no immediate use, reward, or deterrent. It’s a process your brain uses to perceive and map out the environments around you.

Information gathered through latent learning may not be used for weeks, months, or even years, but it may be readily available when needed.